Main content

Thinking Forward: Planning for Conservation

Posted Monday, March 6, 2023
Connections 2023 Winter

Greeting friends, and welcome to the Winter 2023 edition of CONNECTIONS, the quarterly newsletter from Cold Hollow to Canada. I’m feeling immense gratitude as we kick off 2023. Gratitude for our forests, and the communities that call them home. Gratitude for those that sustain our working lands, and the goods and services they provide. Gratitude for our woodstove, battling that recent artic blast. And gratitude for all of you, who generously supported the work of Cold Hollow to Canada in our end of year campaign. This year we raised close to $20,000 through year-end member giving—funds which will support our work in the coming year as we advance our conservation efforts and sustain our programs around forest stewardship and community outreach. We truly could not do this work without you, and from the depths of our hearts we want to say thanks. Your support, in whatever amount, not only fills our coffers, but warms our hearts as we continue our work into this new year, full of hope and promise for the opportunities that await us. I want to give a special shout out to Charles and Mary Jane Mattina—forestland owners in Montgomery and Enosburgh, and longtime Woodlots Program participants—who won our donor raffle this year and will receive a beautiful sugar maple butcher board from JK Adams, embossed with the Cold Hollow to Canada logo.

February means a lot of things—skiing, ice fishing, logging, tapping, tracking, and forever bringing in more firewood—but one thing we have our eye on this time of year is what’s happening in Montpelier under the Golden Dome. As legislators hash out policy this year our forests are again under the spotlight. One thing we’re tracking is H. 126, a renewed effort to pass legislation directing the State to develop a plan for meeting 30x30 objectives for conservation. This was vetoed last year by Governor Scott, but (knock on locally sourced wood) we can get it across the finish line this year.

We need to consider the moment we’re in and why we need this planning effort: consider the climate impacts on our forests (and forest economy) that we’ve spoken so often about, and the need for migration and adaptation efforts. Consider that we’re already looking at a current pace of forest loss estimated at around 15,000 acres being converted on an annual basis to development. Consider that the clock is already ticking as we look at the increasing pace at which people around the United States look to re-locate to Vermont (turbo-charged during covid), and what that means for our communities and landscape. If we’re going to maintain a healthy, productive, resilient landscape that defines our communities, and continues to provide the critical ecological functions we need, as well as supports the working lands economies that our rural communities depend on, we need to start thinking about how we’ll do it. This bill does that.

One angle that does not get much attention in this context is the economic importance of conservation. In 2018 the Trust for Public Land commissioned a Return on Investment in Land Conservation Study which found that for every $1 invested in land conservation the state returns $9 in economic value to the Vermont economy. State investment in land conservation supports critical industries in Vermont (such as forestry, farming, outdoor recreation, and tourism) that depend on the availability of high-quality protected land and water. Conservation investments support jobs in these important industries and reinforce Vermonters’ strong sense of place. The forest products industry supports close to 11,000 jobs, and generates over $1.5 billion in economic output. The land base that we’re talking about here provides the foundation for that.

There’s also a Fiscal Health angle here in that Land conservation saves Vermonters money through avoided costs and pressures on expensive infrastructure and other municipal services required by residential property owners, such as roads, schools, police, and fire protection. Research in Vermont has found that, on average, property tax bills are lower—not higher—in the towns with the most conserved lands. As the Chairman on the Selectboard here in Montgomery, and having just finished our FY24 Municipal Budget, I can tell you this remains front of mind in our communities.

Pulling back some, this bill touches on what is currently a pretty contentious issue within the forestry/conservation communities, centered around the importance of avoiding false dichotomies which some advocacy groups and the media seek to create. This conflict is the reemergence (from decades past) of the debate between those advocating for exclusive use of passive management (in the forestry community a newly termed “proforestation”) and those making the case for sustainable or ecological forestry or the “Triad” model of conservation—arguing for a holistic approach to forest management, combining both passively managed reserves and sustainable forestry. That we should not rely on a single approach is not a new idea, but one

seems to have been lost by the recent cohort of advocates for proforestation. Some of this debate is clearly just beneath the surface of H.126, yet the bill does a nice job of not endorsing any singular approach. Rather, it uses the three categories of “ecological reserves, biological reserves, and natural resource areas” to encompass the spectrum of options that we need–exactly as it should. So, bravo to that.

The bill itself calls mainly for the inventory and assessment work that would set the stage for conservation actions/designations, while shying away from saying how anything actually would be protected, which seems like a reasonable first step. It puts the work largely to the hands the Agency of Natural Resources. While ANR may be in the lead, as the work moves forward we really need understand that this must be a partnership across all entities working in this space, we to be broad and inclusive -we need philanthropic partners, land trusts, conservation organizations, etc. all at the table as they will be the ones primarily executing the plan.

We also can’t forget that Vermont is 75% forestland, of which 80% privately owned. While the bill mentions the acquisition of land, we need to be clear that conservation easements on privately held land will be critical to success. This can’t all be state land. Relatedly, the bill highlights the need for an assessment on how state land will be used to increase ecological reserve areas. I would suggest that this be rephrased to highlight how state lands can meet both our objectives around passive management and working lands. We can’t forget that State lands remain a critical component of our working forests, while also acknowledging the opportunity there for continuous improvement in our management of them. As we look ahead, we continue to address how we promote sustainable management practices, which together supports biodiversity, community, and climate resilience.

How this plan intersects with the Working Lands Economy (which has a conservation factor also) is also important. We must ask ourselves how does this plan act in partnership with viability goals, both ecological and those around community and rural economic development...looking at the moment we’re in I see movement here in parallel with the Forest Futures Plan (see the Winter 2022 edition of CONNECTIONS) and that is fantastic. To that end, we also need to invest in the workforce and infrastructure that supports a vibrant working lands economy that in and of itself is a big part of keeping our landscape intact, which is why I fully support the governor’s budget allocation of $4M to the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative this year, and $3M in base funding in future years.

H. 126 has a long way to go before it seeks the governors pen, and this week the House Committee on Environment and Energy will continue to hear testimony as it works it’s way to the floor. As it does we’ll keep tabs, and if there’s a chance for your voices to be heard we’ll certainly let you know when it matters most.